The Odeon cinema complex, the latest phase of the council led project, Eastgate leisure development was opened the other week. Promoted as the saviour of the dwindling fortunes of Llanelli town centre, (after the other council-led retail, and of course stadium, development at out-of-town Pemberton bled the town dry), let's hope it does and doesn't just benefit the usual array of national retailers and fast food outlets such as Nandos and Costa which the council have been enthusiastically advertising on their website.
The proposals for the development were approved back in 2008. A previous plan to build something similar to St Catherine's Walk fell through when Debenhams pulled out so a revised plan was put forward. Details of the deal with developers and leasing company Henry Davidson Ltd are sketchy with the relevant council reports having been 'exempt' of course. The developers, Henry Davidson Ltd, once a subsidiary of the Fiducia Group but now a subsidiary of the even larger Development Securities PLC, are locally based, well local if you happen to live in Nottingham anyway.
The package was presented to council back in 2008 as the usual fait accompli, there was 'no other option' and questions over the deal and how the identity of Llanelli would be preserved were given the usual heave-ho. In fact the deal, or what we can glean from the scraps of information, is quite interesting. Basically the council purchased all the properties on Upper Park Street, the Island House pub, Mallard House, demolished the lot and threw in their public car park - the whole lot, estimated to be worth around £3-4 m, was then 'gifted to the Nottingham based company. They were then given a grant of £4m to develop the cinema and 'landmark' building.
The middle floor of the 'landmark' building has been designed as a 220 person open plan call centre and the council has committed itself to paying £250,000 per annum for the offices for twenty years, so not only do the developers get a nice guaranteed income back from their original sponsors, the council, but they get to keep the lot for ever.
The open plan office space is of course unsuitable for council purposes and will have to be re-designed, at cost unknown. The current council offices at Ty Elwyn, Llanelli, owned by the council so rent free, look set to be mothballed, conveniently described as 'not fit for purpose'.
As for retaining the distinctiveness of Llanelli, it is rumoured that, apart from the Scarlets (naturally) and national chains, no locally owned pubs, restaurants and businesses were 'eligible' to apply for leases in the new development. The national chains who had first refusal on the units are also rumoured to have a two year 'rent free' period.
The preparation for the site, which involved the annoying presence of vociferous opposition, is rumoured to have cost around £4m in legal battles and compulsory purchase. The row of Georgian buildings along Park Street, the demolition of which was required for a taxi turning circle, were once part of the old coaching route between Swansea and Carmarthen and described as one of the earliest examples of Georgian commercial properties in the town. The Council press release, which made no reference to any objections said they (I presume they mean the buildings, not the objectors) 'Offered little resistance to bulldozers clearing the way for the dawning of the £25million East Gate development....contractors said they were poorly constructed and collapsed in little more than 30 minutes with little encouragement '. That was the end of that then.
The new bus station had to be improved by the council only a couple of months after opening to provide weatherproofing and seating for waiting passengers, something no one had clearly thought might be needed in the tropical climate of Llanelli.
The total costs to the taxpayer are unknown and, rather like the Parc Y Scarlets, they look set to continue for a number of years. Henry Davidson Ltd were paid over a £1m last year alone in consultants fees.
The opening of the cinema had the usual council fanfares out to proclaim the wonders of 'moving pictures'. All 74 councillors and the council's senior management team were offered free tickets and a drinks reception. For the benefit of public relations, each secondary school in the area also had tickets for a small group of children and a couple of teachers.
Clearly the decision to show Madagascar 3 at the opening night was deemed appropriate for the visiting dignitaries, complicated plot lines always best avoided when entertaining tipsy council guests. The rest of us, however, are left wondering how much our council tax will increase next year..
Update; According to today's SW Evening Post, passengers queuing at the new bus station are still getting wet and falling off the benches, and still waiting for the Council and the Eastgate contractors (who, incidentally, are based in Cheltenham) to provide more glass for the shelters. The council also confirm that, in their wisdom 'horizontal seating' would have been more comfortable...as opposed to the near vertical I imagine.